Today the church remembers an obscure German philosopher turned nun: Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Genius, Scholar, and Holocaust Victim.
Born 1891, Edith Stein came into the world to a Jewish family in what is now modern day Poland. Though her family was observant in most every way, Edith abandoned any belief in God by her early teens…a story many families can relate to, no? In the shadow of World War I Edith went to nursing school and then became fascinated with the theme of empathy and the human response to hurt, fear, and pain. At the age of 23 she received her doctorate, using the exploration of empathy as her thesis.
During her college years she began exploring the life of St. Teresa of Avila and, falling in love with that passion and faith, was baptized in 1922. She had originally wanted to enter monastic life then, but instead went on to teach at a Catholic University.
In 1933 when proof of “unaltered European heritage” became a criteria for civil service, Edith was forced out of her teaching position due to her Jewish lineage. Seeing this an opportunity to do what her heart was telling her to do, she became a postulate at the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and, on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila in 1934 received the habit as a novice in the order, taking on the name of her spiritual mentor, Teresa Benedicta a Cruces. In 1938 she completed her vows.
Because the persecution of the Jewish people, and anyone of Jewish heritage, became seen as a central theme of the Nazi Regime, Saint Teresa and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were sent to Echt in Netherlands to hopefully go undetected by the Gestapo. In 1942, however, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference published a letter read in all Dutch churches that condemned the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people, and in retaliation the Gestapo made a concerted effort to round up all Jewish converts to Catholicism.
St. Teresa and Rosa were sent to Auschwitz on August 7th, 1942.
St. Teresa had been preparing her body and mind for a concentration camp for some time, periodically starving herself and sleeping without sheets in the cold. Her preparation, however, was in vain.
On this day, August 9th, after surviving the deportation to Auschwitz, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and so many others were killed in a gas chamber.
St. Teresa was formally sainted by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and is considered one of six patron saints of Europe. Her name and memory graces more than a few European museums, and her life’s story has been dramatized as a play here in America.
Still, the most remarkable thing about St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, at least to me, is how she knew she wasn’t going to survive the war, and yet continued on with her work.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes we continue on with our good work even if we know it won’t last forever.
Indeed, perhaps because we do this, it finds a way to last past death, no?
Perhaps it was empathy that allowed her to do so…and might allow us to as well.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical bits from publicly accessible information
-icon written by Jenn Norton